Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead.
Mahmud Asrar currently provides the art for Marvel’s second semester of “Wolverine & The X-Men,” lending a signature lithe poise to faculty and student body alike. Asrar also contributed to the Kickstarted “Masters of Anatomy” collection, calling on his attention to posture and demeanor for a gallery of stunning silhouettes.
CBR News spoke with Asrar about his ongoing artistic education, from studying the acknowledged masters to the simple pleasures of video games and time traveling romances.
CBR News: I recall you mentioning some time ago that you were considering a move from Turkey to — Vienna was it? Why Austria?
Mahmud Asrar: The political state of [Turkey] is in shambles. A lot of corruption going on but I’d rather not speak about it. Whenever I speak of politics I start to blabber. I’m an Austrian citizen due to my mother being Austrian. I’ve been visiting Vienna almost every year since I was six years old. I’d think it would be safe to say I’m pretty enamored of the place. Been there a few times with my wife and she loves it too, so we’re considering the possibility of moving there.
I’m quite jealous of all the stamps in your passport, though I’m sure travel isn’t always kind to a working artist. I’m thinking of a photo you posted on Instagram, hard at work on a train in Germany. Is that a bother, or a nice change from the studio?
It was quite a bit of fun. Especially considering I had Yanick [Paquette] to keep me company. The train rides in Germany were pretty smooth so it was easy to work. Also our trips were all very interesting with all the different people we’ve encountered. So that was a plus. I have to say I’m pretty much a veteran of working on the road. I’ve been drawing on buses, trains, planes or outdoors in general for quite a long time. Mostly sketching. Since I’m a tall guy I need a little bit of space though. Preferably an empty seat next to me.
And when you’re not traveling, how do you keep yourself entertained these days?
Asides from my career drawing comics I suppose I’m a pretty boring guy. I used to play guitar and bass in a band but we can hardly get together anymore. I have an addiction to video games which does occasionally lead to sleep deprivation. I have to say I never allow it to affect my deadlines though. Now that I’m a father I hardly find any time to do anything other than spend time with my son and work. Any spare time I have I tend to enjoy art in some form or another.
Let’s start with the video games. It’s a pretty popular way for writers and artists to unwind, I’ve found.
I have less and less time to play games anymore. That said, I recently bought a PS3 just to play “The Last Of Us.” Now that I’m a PS3 owner I caught up with some other PS3 games like “Red Dead Redemption,” “Uncharted 3” and “GTA V.” Now I’m itching to play “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” on my PC. Talking about games, I have to mention “Bioshock Infinite” is one of the best games of last year. The story was simply phenomenal.
Agreed. Hits on a lot of fascinating themes. Chewy stuff.
“Bioshock Infinite” was simply fascinating. I’m really picky with my sci-fi stuff and the way they handled the parallel universe concept in this was outstanding. As a setting, I did like Rapture from the previous games more though. The Art Deco design aesthetic and the general atmosphere in Rapture was very unique. Although I’m not yearning for it, I suppose I would enjoy a movie on it.
Did you have trouble with that one part? You know which one. The last big set piece. I don’t want to know how many tries it took before I got it.
It did give me some trouble but wasn’t too bad. Was considerably easier the second time around I played, when I figured out I can protect the generator with the shield vigor. [Laughs]
Wait. Really? Why didn’t I try that?
[Laughs] I found out the second time around when I was playing around with vigors. Surrounded the whole thing with shields. Occasionally keep an eye out on it but you can focus on killing the enemy this way.
Do you just go in for the solo campaigns or do you like multiplayer as well? Is it about inspiration or totally detached escapism?
I play games mostly as a break from work and life in general. I wouldn’t say they’re directly inspirational to me but I can get inspired by certain things in them. A certain event, a character design, a mood. For me there is a certain comfort in linear games that serve as a relaxation thing. However, I’m kind of tired of the scripted scenes that push you to play the game in only one way, like “Call Of Duty” campaigns. I find the spontaneity and surprise factors in games like “Fallout 3.” Or “Assassin’s Creed” where you are free to explore and maybe do the things you want to do in the order you want to do them in.
A sandbox, sure. For me, it doesn’t have to be unprecedentedly sprawling, but so long as there’s oodles of choice and variation — something like “Borderlands,” say–
Yes. Those kinds of games leave a more lasting playability for me. However when the story is engaging enough and the gameplay sucks you in, it’s a different matter. “The Last Of Us” is a pretty linear game but I wouldn’t mind playing it a few more times if I had the time. I don’t play much online. Can’t keep up with the youth much. However me and my wife used to play “Left 4 Dead 2” like crazy for a while.
You mentioned being picky about science fiction. In what sense? What are some examples of the good and the bad from recent memory?
With sci-fi, I get very easily pulled out of the story if the science doesn’t make sense. I realize there should be a suspension of disbelief right away when you get into that kind of thing but it should be coherent in itself, I think. Especially time travel stories are very tricky. There are very few that I truly like. One is “Timecrimes” and another is “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” However others like “Looper” or “Lake House” I just can’t stand, where the writer plays with time as he sees fit with no consequence at all.
I give “Looper” a pass because it’s a crime movie first and a science fiction movie second. I do get a chuckle out of you stomping your feet over “The Lake House” though! How about something like “Frequency” with Jim Caviezel and Dennis Quaid? I like the conceit behind that one.
That’s the one where the guy carves something on the table and it appears “live” in the future, right? Ugh.
Yeah, it doesn’t really gel with any contemporary theories on how time functions, but it sets up its own rules and plays by them. Heart was in the right place, I thought.
Then there’s “Kate & Leopold,” too. Now that one was ridiculous. Seriously though, when a movie tries to pass itself as a science fiction and writes [off] the scientific stuff like in “The Lake House,” then I get pissed off. Just look into it a little. It will only make your stories that much better. 2013 was all right for sci-fi though. My favorite was “Elysium” though. More an action flick than a hardcore sci-fi movie but it was good. A little dated now but I remember “Moon” with Sam Rockwell, quite fondly.
“Moon” is terrific. I loved the world and design aesthetic of “Elysium” but the narrative felt more than a little rote, I thought. No subtlety in a film clamoring for it. And it didn’t help that Damon, while likable, stuck out like a sore thumb as the great white hope.
“Elysium,” like many other films in general did have the white-male-lead-saves-non-whites problem, to be sure. I suppose that kind of thing is why we see lots of remakes of Asian films. It sucks but that’s how the world turns right now. I mean, who really needs an “Oldboy” remake? “Pacific Rim” was a thoroughly enjoyable film. I have a weak spot for giant robots and mechs too. Great movie, though I wished at least some of the fight scenes were shot more in daylight and in clear weather.
A weak spot for giant robots, you say? Any favorite designs?
Hmm… That’s a tough one because there aren’t many and the ones that are out there are not mostly good. Don’t know if these count but the mech suit in “Aliens” is amazing. I love ED-209 from “Robocop.” Even though I enjoy them, I’m not crazy about the genre of giant monsters. I do like the 2005 “King Kong” and the cheesy 1976 “King Kong” though. When it comes to mech designs, my hands down favorites are the “Battletech”/”Mechwarrior” mechs. Mad Cat, Vulture… I drool over those.
So, silly time travel question. Let’s go back and meet any artist from any medium at the height of their game. Who would you want to visit and when in their career? What would you want to talk about or see them work on?
That’s a tough one. At the moment I think I’d say Katsuhiro Otomo working on “Akira” or “Domu.” Both are kinda in the same time, so either would be fine. His discipline and level of skill leaves me speechless.Â I’m sure if you asked this to me another time my answer would be different though.
I’ve just finished reading “Akira” for the first time as part of a book club. What strikes you most about Otomo’s work? I was taken with the sense of movement. He does some incredible chase scenes.Â “Domu” is on my list, but it seems to be out of print.
Even though I’ve enjoyed the art of the book for many years I only read it for the first time a couple of years ago myself. The anime I liked, but it didn’t mean too much to me aside from the production quality. I find the manga is so much better in so many ways that it makes the movie a better experience for me. It’s interesting to see the huge amount of differences in both too. “Domu,” I’ve actually read earlier but was always enthralled by because of the art. Funny thing is, I still don’t have the book either. So if you find a spare, do let me know. I’d agree with you on the motion. He applies the manga languageÂ into his pagesÂ in a more realistic way which is so impressive, it has me shaking my head all the time. There’s also the thing that the attention to detail is so incredibly consistent. There’s never a lazy panel, ever. I keep on showing things from the books to my wife which I is something I rarely do. It’s something I only do when I geek out like a fanboy.
If you could watch him work on one page or panel or sequence from any of his books, what moment would you choose?
It’s hard to choose a specific scene. There are countless panels that makes me pause and stare and sometimes it’s the not so obvious ones. Sometimes he does something in the foreground element which adds so much to the composition or motion. Sometimes it’s the way he gives us a roomy panel where zooms out and makes us go “whoa, this is serious.” It will be a bit of a cliche probably but I simply adore the ending. The last few pages with the bikes and the city are simply perfect.
When I spoke to Greg Rucka he said he loved reading a friend’s writing and stumbling on a passage or idea of turn of phrase he felt he could never have come up with himself. That didn’t discourage him. It excited him. Do you have similar moments when you look at art? Is it about technique or not having the idea first? Does that make sense?
I’d say I’m with Rucka there. That kind of thing I see as a learning experience. When I see an artist solve a problem, so to speak, it just opens my eyes to new possibilities. Actually that kind of thing makes the person who inspired me all the more precious. I’m not sure it’s the same thing in drawing compared to writing. At least the way I try to be inspired. Instead of using a similar idea, or say composition, I try to understand how this person who inspired me renders some fabric, what kind of effects they use or how they use color.
It strikes me that you’re working on a book about experienced heroes guiding the new generation, and in a lot of ways, you’re now one of the best there is at what you do. Do you think you’d make a good teacher? Would you emulate the style of any of the professors from the Jean Grey School?
I think it would be Storm. She’s got that strong character that would intimidate me if I was a student of hers. You know the kind of teacher who you don’t want to have mad at you. Besides, it’s fun to draw her, too. I’ve not had much experience as a teacher except for a handful of workshops I managed. Honestly, I think the responsibility of being a teacher would be too overbearing for me. However, I’ve enjoyed the experience quite a bit even though I’m not sure if I did a good job or not. So I suppose I’d be good in caring for the students but who knows? Maybe if I did it long term I’d suck at it entirely.
Could you see yourself being a student again?
I’d definitely love to be a student again. I’d jump at the opportunity to get a class from any artist I truly admire, living or dead. Imagine attending a class by John Buscema or Norman Rockwell. It would have been truly phenomenal. In any case I feel I’m constantly in pursuit of learning something new. I suppose that’s the life pursuit of any artist — a constant state of learning. Curiosity is the basis of artistic creativity.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Mahmud Asrar and follow him on Twitter at MahmudAsrar.